From laggard to leader: APP’s zero-deforestation journey

My bags are packed, I'm ready to go. In less than 24 hours, I'll be boarding a flight to Indonesia. This is the biggest journey I've ever been on, and I'm not quite sure what to expect when I land.

I suspect the way I feel now is similar the way Aida Greenbury felt two-and-a-half years ago. It’s a feeling of nervous excitement; making a commitment to travel – alone – to a destination you have never been to before.

“Nobody has done this before us – it’s unprecedented,” says Aida. “But if we didn’t make this commitment, I wouldn’t dare to dream where we would be a few years from now.

“We’ve had to take the leap and build our wings on the way down. But the journey was worth it, and because we dared to leap, we are now seen as the leader.”

We are speaking in an office in central London a few weeks ago – the subject up for discussion: zero-deforestation.

Aida is the managing director for sustainability and stakeholder engagement at Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) – one of the largest companies of its kind in the world. With an annual products capacity of more than 19 million tonnes and approximately 79,000 employees across Indonesia and China, APP is a vast empire – and one wholly dependent on the natural resource provided by a tropical forest climate and landscape. 

Aida’s joined in the London office by Lee Henderson – APP’s manager of European sustainability and stakeholder outreach. The pair have together helped APP undergo a transformation from an anathema of green groups and NGOs to a leading voice for the pulp and paper industry on deforestation, after promising an end to the clearance of rainforests throughout the company’s supply chain.

“Zero-deforestation was the biggest commitment possible for any pulp and paper organisation,” Lee – who is also a qualified forester – tells me. “We are talking about an estate covering 2.6 million hectares. Add to that the fact that Indonesia is made up of 17,000 islands, and you begin to understand the significance of the challenge of linking everything together and managing it all.”

No excuses

Almost three years on from making that bold pledge, and APP’s deforestation strategy has gradually strengthened; supported by ongoing co-operation with the likes of Greenpeace, the Rainforest Alliance and The Forest Trust – validating progress and independently assuring that the company’s Forest Conservation Policy (FCP) is being honoured. “The NGOs have been absolutely brilliant as critical friends along the way,” Lee says.

Central to APP’s zero-deforestation progress has been supply chain traceability. Timber supply chains are notoriously complex, but Aida and her team quickly realised this mantra should not be used as an excuse to avoid the issue of deforestation and unsustainable business practices.

“Some people still think traceability is not important but that’s very irresponsible,” Aida says. “How can you sell something to your customers without those customers knowing where it’s coming from?

“You have to start simple, with delivery documents and then from there you can track everything; carry out supplier assessments or regions and improve the whole system.

“If somebody says it’s impossible to trace their raw material suppliers, they are lying through their teeth – I’ve been through this experience now and I know that you can trace everything. You just need to be prepared to be transparent and invest – both of which are not easy to do.”

This in-depth analysis of its own supply chain was a bitter pill to swallow for some of the group’s suppliers, but it was an imperative part of the deforestation pledge. As Lee explains: “You can’t have an FCP which involves being really transparent and then have a certain part of your supply chain that isn’t adhering to that same ethos.

“We eventually ceased working with one of our suppliers because they couldn’t manage those commitments – we’d been working with them for 25 years, they were a founding part of the company and that was sad to see. But that was the pledge we’d made.”

‘Tip of the iceberg’

APP has certainly put its money where its mouth is: the company has invested $120m in three years on zero-deforestation alone, with an additional $40m a year being ploughed into other sustainability initiatives across the company.

This makes Aida’s next statement all the more surprising: “Making the deforestation pledge was the easy part.

“Deforestation is actually just the tip of the iceberg – there’s something much bigger under the water… it’s the whole landscape. Land conflict; the collapse of the ecosystem; and massive greenhouse gas emissions are all huge challenges.

“The big moment of realisation for us was when we realised we needed to take a landscape approach to all of this.”

For Aida, a landscape approach is one that is integrated, more comprehensive and collaborative; involving all landowners – even if they are competitors or in different countries. To use her own words in a recent blog for edie: “If there’s no control over the forest, there’s no control over deforestation.”

But both Aida and Lee agree that the most challenging issue of all here is land conflict, involving overlapping resource interests among different companies, indigenous communities or the state.

Within Indonesia, poor mapping and conflicting Governmental departments can often lead to paper companies, palm oil producers and mining concessions all claiming to have the legal rights over the same chunk of land. These land conflicts have become infinitely more complex over the last two years as political and economic stakes have increased.

“It’s the biggest problem we face,” Lee admits. “Forest clearance is still happening in APP concessions. The reason for that is encroachment – whether it’s illegal activity, or bigger issues around land conflict. It could be something as simple as a local family cutting down trees – we’re dealing with 2.6 million hectares, so we can’t take encroachment away overnight.”

Conflict resolution

The Rainforest Alliance’s recent evaluation of APP’s progress to meet its FCP commitments found that the company had already begun mapping social conflicts and established processes to begin resolving them. But only a small proportion of the several hundred conflicts mapped are currently moving through the process and, of those, only one pilot social conflict resolution project has been completed.

With so many variables at play, and so many land conflicts continuing to arise, is this actually a solvable issue?

 “No,” says Aida. “Conflicts will always exist in every supply chain. Some NGOs will say ‘do not buy products from companies that have social conflict in their supply chains’, but that basically means ‘do not buy products ever’.

“Conflicts cannot be resolved, but they can be managed – and that is what we’re trying to achieve. Our responsibility is to build a system to manage it properly and responsibly. We know we are not there yet… we still have to deal with so many different action plans to resolve conflicts in our supply chain.”

But an analysis of deforestation and land conflict should not be entirely focused on APP. There needs to be a collective effort and conversations – involving all pulp and paper companies, suppliers, NGOs, local communities and Governments – to agree on a common set of goals that eradicate or, at the very least, minimise these issues.


On a global level, the recent New York Deceleration on Forests presented a major breakthrough here. Governments, multinational companies – including APP – and campaigners together pledged to halt the loss of the world’s natural forests by 2030, and to halve the rate of deforestation by the end of this decade.

“That was the first thing we’d seen from companies to actually acknowledge that forests do play a huge part within climate change,” says Lee. “I hope the upcoming climate talks in Paris will follow up on those pledges – we need firm agreements on how to implement them all.”

And on a more local level, Aida and her team are now spending a lot more time on the ground in Indonesia; communicating with tribal elders and local communities via spokespeople, to try to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction. But Aida is acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

“If you expect collaboration, you won’t achieve it without giving the locals a full understanding of what you want to achieve,” she explains. “We need to start with educating the ideas to them and then finding the common goals.

“But it’s going to be a long process – sustainability is still a foreign word in Indonesian landscapes. When you go to the rural areas, you see what I mean.”

And that brings us back to my trip to Indonesia.

Over the next week, edie will be visiting APP’s operations in Jakarta and Pekanbaru to see how the company is taking action to fulfil its deforestation commitment and gain a first-hand experience of the complexity of the country’s landscapes. Stay tuned for exclusive interviews, galleries and video highlights of the trip.

See you on the other side.

Luke Nicholls 

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